Brexit at five: where are we now?

The 2016 referendum failed to specify what leaving the EU would entail—making the chaos that followed inevitable

June 23, 2021
David Bleeker - London / Alamy Stock Photo
David Bleeker - London / Alamy Stock Photo

It seems like a lifetime ago since we woke to the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Although it’s just five years since the referendum, those years have been some of the most tumultuous in modern political history.

Unusually, that political drama reached deep into people’s lives. Family occasions became a minefield of arguments bitterly contested or studiously avoided. Knife-edge parliamentary votes, involving obscure procedural devices, were watched by millions, whilst outside parliament angry protestors demonstrated alongside a semi-permanent city of media tents.

Brexit is far from being finished, as ongoing rows about its implementation and contestations over its effects show. But we do now have a little distance on the years since the 2016 vote, and can see the bigger shape of events that emerged from the forest of detail. My book, published today, is an attempt to make sense of those years.

Central to the chaos of those years was the referendum’s failure to specify which of many possible forms Brexit should take. Nor did Theresa May’s post-referendum government construct any process to secure consent on a form. Instead, it became defined partly by decisions that she and a small number of advisers took and partly by relentless pressure from the most hardline Brexiters for an ever-more extreme form of Brexit.

Thus Brexit came to mean the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and customs union. Despite the claims of some, this was not the automatic consequence of the vote to leave the EU. Had it been so, May would not have taken six months to announce that this was what Brexit would mean.

That declaration inevitably alienated Remainers, the more so as they became the target of vitriolic abuse and denounced as traitors. And not only Remainers. Judges and civil servants were traduced as “enemies of the people” simply for doing their jobs. Brexit ceased to be a practical question about legal and trading arrangements and became a bitter culture war.

Rational debate and planning became all but impossible as Brexit came to rely upon belief rather than facts. Basic realities, such as the necessity for borders entailed by leaving the single market and customs union, were denied, and those pointing to them were denounced for opposing “the will of the people.”

Yet Leavers were just as unhappy as Remainers. Because Brexit could mean so many different things, any actual version of it was viewed by some as betrayal. And to the extent that Brexit had been promised as something with no costs—economic or otherwise—with any suggestion of costs dismissed as “Project Fear,” it was inevitable that when those costs eventuated Brexiters would denounce them as “EU punishment.” In any case, as the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has observed, because Brexit was based on a fantasy of Britain being oppressed by the EU, “liberation” was bound to be disappointing.

Hence, despite May’s uncompromising embrace of hard Brexit, she came to be reviled as “Theresa the Remainer.” This was because, unlike the Brexit ultras, she tried to fashion their ideas into a deliverable policy that accommodated, rather than denied, the realities of, especially, Northern Ireland.

The central flaw of Brexit was then revealed: both those supporting the exit deal she negotiated and those opposing it could be described as betraying Brexit or as delivering Brexit. It wasn’t just that Brexit hadn’t been defined in 2016, it was that it defied definition. Any attempt to put it into practice was, for some, not “true Brexit.”

Alongside this central problem of what Brexit meant, persistent confusions existed about the process by which it would occur. The Article 50 process was only about agreeing exit terms, taking account of likely future terms, but not agreeing them in detailed or binding form. Yet many Brexiters persisted in believing that both exit and future terms could be agreed together, and that exit terms should not be agreed until future terms were. In particular, they regarded the financial settlement as linked to a future trade deal, as some still believe it should have been.

This meant that, throughout key parliamentary votes, MPs ended up talking about the wrong thing—especially when they demanded that a “Canada-style” deal (which would be a future terms deal) should be made instead of the Withdrawal Agreement (which was the exit deal). Even now, there are still some Brexiter MPs who believe that the eventual trade deal that Boris Johnson agreed in some way supersedes the Withdrawal Agreement.

This same confusion was present in the way that Johnson cut through the constraints of parliamentary arithmetic by winning an election on the basis of the “oven ready deal” he had negotiated. In fact, it was only the Withdrawal Agreement. Moreover, to create a Withdrawal Agreement that his MPs would accept he had agreed to an arrangement for an Irish Sea border.

That decision has already had many consequences but, crucially, nothing remotely like it was proposed during the referendum campaign. As a result, many Brexiters—not confined to Northern Ireland Unionists—regard it as a betrayal of Brexit.

Other Brexiters say the same thing of the subsequent trade agreement, for example because of its effects on the fishing industry. Still others regard it as “Brexit in Name Only,” as perhaps they would view any form of leaving involving any agreements, of any kind, with the EU. And both Remainers and Leavers can justifiably say that Brexit has turned out to be nothing like what was promised when, five years ago today, votes were cast.

It is important to understand what happened since that day, and why. Some would prefer not to talk about it, insisting that Brexit is a lemon that has been sucked dry. Others are engaged in often quite flawed rewritings of history, retrospectively assigning blame. Indeed the most remarkable, and certainly the most tragic, feature of Brexit five years on is how almost no one wants to take responsibility, still less credit, for it.